Time to write your Christmas cards

On the same day that the Treasury Committee was taking oral evidence from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and others, the Public Bill Committee of MPs set up to carry out the Committee stage of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill met for the first time in a room just down the corridor in Portcullis House – what an embarrassment of riches that provided for those wandering the streets of London with a few hours to spare.

On that day the Committee sat for both morning and afternoon sessions. Further all day meetings were held on the following Thursday and Tuesday, with a final morning only session taken on the subsequent Thursday – and that was job done. I must admit that this was my first experience of the procedures of the committee stage of a bill, but having watched and listened to the proceedings – the recordings of the final three sessions are only available in sound – and reviewed the transcripts, I feel that I am beginning to understand a little of what goes on.

I have also been helped by a paper on the impact of Bill Committees written by Dr Louise Thompson, of the Centre for Legislative Studies, University of Hull. In her paper Dr Thompson includes a paragraph which provides an excellent critique of the process and, although this is fairly lengthy, I believe that it is worth reproducing here in full:

“Bill committees are generally regarded in the literature as being extremely weak policy making bodies. This is a product of both their membership and their procedural rules, which seem to work in favour of the government and militate against effective scrutiny and policy making by the individual Member. Members are appointed to bill committees in proportion to party strength in the House and as such, the governing party will always have a majority of members on a committee. They are thus often described as ‘the House in miniature’ or even as ‘mini parliaments’. Although Erskine May states that political parties are required to take into account a Member’s ‘qualifications and to the composition of the House’, in reality members are appointed by the party whips who are said to ‘dragoon people’ on to committees. Whips were first appointed to bill committees in 1947 to ‘reinforce the party view’ and to ensure the speedy and efficient despatch of committee business. Over the years they have served to exacerbate the partisan atmosphere. Government whips in particular have become the embodiment of committee discipline, effectively running the committee of which they are a member. This usually means appointing those backbenchers considered to be particularly loyal or compliant and discouraging members from speaking or from moving obstructive amendments. MPs note that there is considerable pressure to remain silent on a bill committee, particularly as a government backbencher. As one points out, ‘you’re told to bring your Christmas cards, sign them and shut up’. Alternatively, it may mean encouraging members to make speeches in order to keep a debate going and prevent potentially more troublesome committee amendments being reached.”

Sometimes I think that democracy survives in this Country in spite of, rather than because of, the practices of our “Mother of Parliaments”.

The secret shenanigans that Government and Opposition whip’s offices employ to contrive many of the workings of Parliament, including, as Dr Thompson says, the appointment of members of bill committees, are referred to as “the usual channels”. So what committee membership did the usual channels cook up to consider the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill then?

Two Chairpersons from the backbenches were appointed and they shared the work between them, each taking the chair for complete morning or afternoon sessions. The two were Liberal Democrat MP Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) and Labour MP Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North); both representing constituencies well away from the route and, as far as I am aware, neither has been particularly vocal on matters HS2.

The DfT was represented by Rt Hon Simon Burns MP, Minister of State for Transport, and the Opposition frontbench by Shadow Rail Minister Lilian Greenwood MP (Nottingham South).

The interests of the usual channels were promoted by Government Assistant Whip Nicky Morgan MP (Loughborough) and Opposition Whip Nic Dakin MP (Scunthorpe).

The balance of members of the Committee, selected by party in order that the representation was, as Dr Thompson says, “in proportion to party strength in the House” comprised six Conservative, four Labour, one Liberal Democrat and one Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) backbenchers. You might think that the DUP would have very little interest in HS2, and despite its representative, Jim Shannon MP (Strangford), being the Party’s spokesman for “health and transport” that would appear to be the case – Mr Shannon’s voice was heard only once during the sessions and his vote is not recorded in any of the divisions.

Of the six Conservatives, five had voted in favour of the Second Reading of the paving bill and against the amendment. The sixth, Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP (Meriden) had not taken part in either vote, and was the only Conservative member of the Committee with constituents directly affected by HS2. The position was similar on the Labour side, with two Members having voted in favour of the Second Reading of the paving bill and against the amendment. A third MP, Khalid Mahmoud (Birmingham Perry Bar) is not included in the list in Hansard of those who voted in either division, but did intervene in the debate expressing strong support for HS2. The fourth Labour MP was, however, the exception. The constituency of the Rt Hon Frank Dobson MP is Holborn and St Pancras and a good number of his constituents are badly hit by HS2. He was the only member of the Committee who had both supported the amendment to the paving bill and voted against its second reading. The Liberal Democrat representative on the Committee was Alan Reid MP (Argyll and Bute). He took part in the Second Reading debate, expressing support for HS2, and voted in favour of the Second Reading and against the amendment. The DUP representative did not take part either in the Chamber debate on the Bill, or in the subsequent divisions.

So the Public Bill Committee sitting on the HS2 paving bill was heavily packed with supporters of HS2, but I don’t think that this is cause for complaint, bearing in mind the way that the two divisions on the Second Reading went.

Acknowledgement: The paragraph on the impact of bill committees quoted above is taken from,

Thompson, L, Influence or Inconsequential? The Impact of Bill Committees in the House of Commons.

PS: Since I wrote this blog my attention has been drawn to a recent report by the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (Revisiting “Rebuilding the House”: the impact of the Wright reforms), and my thanks go to Dr Chris Eaglen for alerting me to this document. Whilst this report considers a range of aspects of parliamentary business worthy of reform, these include the selection of members of legislative committees and the report proper devotes, out of a total of almost fifty pages, just over a page (paragraphs 32 to 34 and a recommendation in paragraph 36) to this topic. Those wishing to investigate this matter further may wish to consult the two volumes (Volume 1, Volume 2) containing the report and the oral and written evidence given to the Committee.

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